VHS Revival looks back at the festive season’s villainous nearly men.
From Ebenezer Scrooge to Hans Gruber, you can always count on a cold-hearted cynic to try to ruin Christmas. As well as being a time for joy and togetherness, the festive period also brings great pressure, punctuating feelings of loneliness and despair that can ultimately lead to resentful misdeeds.
But yuletide sabotage isn’t restricted to the black of heart. The lust for seasonal perfection can make villains out of the best of us, while snow and sleigh bells add that extra bit of magic to the silver screen, providing the perfect backdrop for skulduggery and making veritable angels out of those who manage to save the day.
In this article, VHS Revival looks back at a selection of characters who almost ruined Christmas.
Character: Howard Langston
Movie: Jingle All the Way (1996)
Sometimes you just can’t help but become the yuletide Grinch, in spite of your best efforts. By 1996, Arnold Schwarzenegger had done it all in the movie business, from mythical warrior to sci-fi icon to Kindergaten Cop, but having been overlooked for the part of John McClane in John McTiernan‘s Die Hard, one cinematic sub-genre had so far alluded him: the time-honoured Christmas movie.
Concentrating mainly on family-orientated roles as he eyed a crowd-pleasing career in politics, Arnie got that chance with Jingle All the Way, playing sub-par dad Howard Langston, a relatable character desperately trying to locate the year’s hottest Christmas toy hours before the big day.
During his increasingly ludicrous quest, Langston runs into a paternal competitor facing the same dilemma, and the two descend into bouts of comic book violence as the chances of landing a Turbo-Man action figure slip through their fingers, highlighting the pressures and frustrations that parents across the globe feel each and every year.
Of course, this is Arnie we’re dealing with, and after crashing a festive parade with the hope of presenting his son with the one remaining action figure in the entire city, he contrives to dress in a life-size Turbo-Man action suit and save his son from certain death, while his frenzied opponent lands himself some jail-time dressed as the fictional superhero’s arch nemesis, Dementor.
Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. But nobody does ridiculous quite like Schwarzenegger.
Character: Hans Gruber
Movie: Die Hard (1988)
Would Die Hard have proved such a special movie with Arnie at the helm? It’s unlikely. Prior to his star turn in John McTiernan’s action extravaganza, Bruce Willis was a terrestrial TV star famous for ’80s comedy-drama Moonlighting, but his role as heroic everyman John McClane catapulted him to superstardom, resulting in one of the most unlikely Christmas movies in the history of cinema.
But every hero needs a dastardly foil, and none are more sneering and scrooge-like than the late Alan Rickman‘s thief extraordinaire Hans Gruber. Unlike action genre bad guys who preceded him, Gruber was cut from a very different cloth. Suave, sophisticated and ruthless in his intentions, his well-oiled machine of international terrorists dropped by to spoil the Nakatomi Christmas party, proving that even the most refined of criminals are motivated by everyday greed, and I’m not talking about the corporation’s Japanese executives.
Armed with plastic explosives and a whole floor of hostages, Gruber sets about stealing millions in untraceable bearer bonds with the intention of blowing up the Nakatomi Plaza and everyone inside. And he might have succeeded were it not for the spirit of Christmas and New York cop McClane’s unbreakable desire to be reunited with his family in time for Santa.
The movie is violent and bloody and laced with cynical wit, as skyscrapers explode and men fall from buildings and our semi-reluctant hero drags his bloodied feet across terrains of shattered glass. All of this wrapped in a cute little Christmas bow that leaves you feeling all warm inside.
They don’t make them like this anymore.
Movie: Gremilns (1984)
They say a pet’s for life, not just for Christmas, but you’d be forgiven for giving the Peltzer’s a pass when it comes to temporary affection. Animals are known to have very different personalities, which explains the behavioural chasm that exists between adorable little mogwai Gizmo and his vile and mischievous offspring.
Led by cruel gang leader Stripe, the Gremlins start out as little bundles of terror before graduating to sadistic torture, extreme vandalism and murder, while hanging family dogs from Christmas lights is their idea of seasonal joviality.
Not content with ruining Christmas for the family who unwittingly gave birth to them, Stripe and his gang of malevolent creatures set about destroying the whole neighbourhood, raiding local businesses like an over zealous gang of office jocks and even sending an old lady careening through her window into a nearby tree after tampering with her stair lift.
Okay, so modern day Ebenezer Scrooge Mrs Deagle deserved everything she got, but while others were put in their place, sweet paternal women such as the ever pleasant Lynn Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) was subjected to such torment that she went the other way, attacking the invading creatures with the kind of kitchen knife that would make Michael Myers shrink with fear, while exploding another in the microwave.
Perhaps Stripe and his gang did ruin Christmas after all. But when you get to go home with Phoebe Cates, it can’t be all bad.
Character(s): Harry and Marv
Movie: Home Alone (1990)
‘Harry, he’s gonna call the cops!’
‘From a treehouse?!’
Oh, Harry and Marv! Criminal masterminds they most definitely were not, but that didn’t stop them from trying to ruin Christmas for the McCallister’s and everybody else in the affluent suburbs of Chicago. Okay, so there are millions more worthy of our festive sympathies than a family who can afford to fly a bus loads of kids to Paris, France for the holidays, but there is perhaps nothing more immoral in the eyes of a child than to wake up and find out that all of their gifts have been stolen. Ordinary thieves would probably leave those toys in favour of diamonds, but these are no ordinary thieves.
Back in 1990, Macaulay Culkin shot to fame as the cute little kid with a penchant for housebound torture, devising a veritable house of horrors that a whole team of logistical experts would struggle to pull off. However, when you are 10 years old, using tar to remove a man’s shoes and socks just in time for him to stand on a carefully positioned nail is not only plausible, but outright genius, while any criminal stupid enough to lose his shoe through a cat flap is surely dumb enough to sick his head in their and take a rifle pellet square in the head.
Not satisfied with merely stealing Christmas, the self-titled Wet Bandits would flood the houses of all of their victims by stuffing tissue into their sink plugs and turning on all the taps, a not-so-brilliant plan which would expose every last crime they ever committed.
Cheer up, fellers. Maybe you’ll fare better in the sequel. Sticky Bandits anyone?
Movie: Bad Santa (2003)
The Christmas Grinch comes in many forms. Sometimes they even hide behind another supposed Grinch, judging from the shadows and secretly working on a master plan while a much more prominent figure takes the heat. Other times that Grinch is a four foot, smack-talking dwarf who has every right to stab a friend in the back. Willie may have changed for the better come Christmas Day, but just think of all the sh*t he had put his long-suffering partner through.
When we first meet Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), he is a cynical, schoolgirl fondling drunk with a penchant for the booze and a bitter taste in his mouth. Every year, he and his midget accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox) masquerade as a department store Santa and his vertically challenged elf while they secretly plot to rob the joint as soon as their contract is up. The two of them have been running the scam for years, but Willie is losing focus, spending his money as fast as he earns it and moving from town-to-town in search of his next possible freebie.
This time around, Willie finds that free ride in ‘The Kid’ (Brett Kelly), a bullied fat kid with a jailbird father who mopes around his family’s giant home while his grandma sleeps away her final years. Willie soon takes advantage of the situation, but after growing to like the kid he sees the error of his ways and decides to call it a day after one last heist.
Unluckily for him, Marcus and his materialistic horror of a girlfriend have other ideas and decide to put Willie out of his misery. They almost succeed too, but after multiple gunshot wounds and a stint in jail, Willie is a new man with a makeshift family awaiting his return. When you think about it, Marcus didn’t ruin Christmas at all – quite the opposite in a roundabout way.
Oh well, there’s nothing like a happy ending in time for the festive season.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut